Okay, Sarah Whyment may have given up writing, but she's still a fount of amazing plots. I asked a question about my plot and she came back with an fantastic mystery. Come on, Sarah. You need to get writing again!
In the meantime, here is something she helped me with...
Ride out the Storm
Necks stiffened almost imperceptibly in the darkness; the dancing, flickering flames cast sinister shadows over the faces of outlaws determined not to let on they’d heard the snap of a twig on the periphery of their camp site. A pair of blue eyes met brown; the knotting of the brows a sign of affirmation that the unspoken plan had begun.
A few men strolled casually to the edges of the campsite and melted into the darkness. Kyle raised a tin mug to his lips and nervously gulped back the contents. The practiced drill dictated that those already beside the fire should stay there to draw in whoever was stalking them. It was a dangerous position in full light, but approaching lawmen had to have someone to home in on and it was the luck of the draw; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All they could do was sit tight and trust their comrades to do their part. A scramble for cover would almost certainly result in chaos and crossfire; this was the safest way.
The Kid inched forward, stepping carefully to avoid the same mistake as his quarry. He had no idea how many of them there were, but the best way to find out was to crouch, listen and watch. It didn’t take long before his head turned in response to another crack, followed rapidly by rustling and a yelp. The crash of a body falling into what was apparently a more than averagely brittle, yelp-provoking bush told Kid Curry all he wanted to know about the professionalism of his opponent. The lack of response to the predicament and the minutes of impotent thrashing around showed that he was either on his own, or his accomplices cared so little that it amounted to much the same thing.
He stood, but the familiar silhouette already hauling a figure from the shrubbery told him that Heyes had beaten him to it.
“He’s just a boy.” The sound of none-too-gentle patting indicated that the lad was being quickly searched. “He’s clean. Come with me, sonny. Somebody needs to teach you not to sneak up on men in the dark. Where are your folks?” Staccato sobbing cut through the night air. “Stop crying, boy. Where are your folks?”
The Kid heard Heyes give a snort of irritation at the lack of response but hung back in the shadows, still alert for the possibility of ambush.
Kyle squinted at the boy being trotted into the halo of the campfire by the scruff of his neck. “What ya got there, Heyes?”
“Our ambush.” The lad was prodded forward into the camp. Heyes turned him around to stare into the grubby face streaked with tears and mucous. He kept his voice low and controlled, but it was to remain stripped of kindness until he knew exactly what was going on. “I’m gonna ask you again. Where are your folks?”
“I haven’t got any folks.”
Heyes frowned. The educated, Eastern accent was incongruous against the beggarly, torn clothes three sizes too big. The sobbing started up again. He glanced over at the Kid who wandered casually back into the clearing. The nod assured him that the area had been checked and nothing had been found. Quizzical dark eyes returned to the interloper and Heyes’ voice softened. “You’re an orphan?”
The thin face hardened and the chin tilted defiantly up at the outlaw leader but the refusal to meet anyone’s eyes told Heyes what he wanted to know about the lad’s potential bravado. “So?”
“Why’re you creeping around in the dark? I’m not buying you being on your own. We’re twelve miles to the nearest town. Who’re you with?”
The child’s bottom lip started to tremble, but he bit into it and backhanded away the glittering snot and tears. “I’m on my own. I just smelled the food... I’m hungry.”
“Aw, Heyes. Leave ‘im alone,” Kyle drawled. “He’s just a hungry kid,” all eyes turned to the fast-gun leaning against a tree, “and we know all about them, don’t we?” Kyle raised his tin cup and threw back a slug of moonshine. “Ya want some beans, boy?”
The lad’s eyes widened and darted towards Heyes before he stared hungrily at Kyle. “Beans?”
“Kyle, feed the boy,” Heyes strode over to join his cousin.
“Nobody else there,” murmured the Kid. “Wheat, Preacher and I searched the area. Unless they’re watchin’ from a distance and sent the boy in to see what he can find out.”
Heyes nodded. “Well, we’ve just got to make sure that whatever he does find out isn’t any use to anyone.” He groaned softly and rubbed his face distractedly at the words drifting in the night air.
“Yup, we’s the Devil’s Hole Gang.” Kyle pointed toward the partners with a dripping spoon. “That there’s Kid Curry and the fella givin’ up dirty looks, that’s Hannibal Heyes hisself. We’s gonna rob a bank tomorrow.”
The Kid watched the lad shovel beans into his mouth as fast as his bodily functions could cope. “Yeah, good plan, Heyes. Give him over to Kyle. I can’t see where that could go wrong at all. What are we gonna do now? Keep him or kill him?”
“I guess tomorrow’s job is off. I can always depend on my gang, huh?”
A smirk played around the Kid’s lips. “I guess that depends on what you need them to do. The boy says he’s alone? All the way out here at night? We chose to camp here because there’s nothing for miles.”
“He’s obviously travelled. There’s a lot that bothers me about this. He’s real well-spoken too.”
The smirk spread into a fully-fledged grin. “Jealous, Heyes? You speak alright for a farm boy with his own teeth.”
Kyle scrutinized the child by the light of the fire. “The boy’s got cuts on his cheek, Preacher. Yah got anythin’ for them?”
“You got whiskey,” Preacher observed the lad through hooded eyes. “Use that.”
“Ma whiskey?” Kyle’s eyebrows shot skywards. “That costs two bits a jug. I ain’t wastin’ it.”
Preacher shook his head ruefully. “Yeah, nuthin’ but the best for you. The boy won’t mind whiskey.”
The inhaling of beans paused and the boy’s big eyes blinked through the darkness. “I don’t drink alcohol.”
“A real good boy,” snickered Wheat. “I bet he don’t smoke, steal or curse either.”
“No, I certainly don’t.”
Kyle’s nose crinkled at his friend. “Leave ‘im be, Wheat. He’s an orphan. It’s real tough for a boy to learn things without a pa. I know that for sure. I had to learn all that from my ma.” His blue eyes looked wistfully into the fire. “It just ain’t the same.”
Heyes rolled his eyes. “Let’s get over there before they start a junior branch.”
Two pairs of boots crunched to a halt beside the boy.
“What’s your name?” the Kid asked.
“Chancy?” the Kid repeated. “What kinda name is that?”
“Chauncey. Chauncey de Gosbeck Bosiet.” Chauncey stared down at his empty plate with an air of disappointment.
“Chancy? Why’d you call a boy that?” snorted the Kid. “That ain’t a name that’ll be the making of an honest man.”
The boy’s slim eyebrows gathered into a knot. “I’m named after my grandfather. He was a politician in England.”
“Yeah?” the Kid nodded. “Credit where’s it due. They sure know how to call a spade a spade; Chancy the politician.”
“Chancy,” Heyes began.
“Yeah, whatever,” Heyes waved a dismissive hand. “What’re you doing all the way out here on your own?”
“I’m going to Boston.”
Heyes and Curry shared a conversation in a glance. “Boston? Do you know how far that is from here?”
“Quite far? It’s about two thousand miles east of here.”
Chauncey’s lips formed into an ineffectual ‘O.’ “That’s quite a lot.”
Heyes sat down beside the little, hunched figure and gestured towards the plate. “Ya want more? Kyle can get that for you.” He handed the plate over to be refilled. “Listen. We’re miles from anywhere. What’re you doing out here. We need to get you to your folks.”
“My father died just over a year ago. My mother died when I was born.”
Heyes pondered this information. “Yeah, so who were you heading towards?”
“My mother’s friend. She’d never have seen me put in a home. She’ll take me in.”
“A home?” Heyes flicked up an eyebrow.
“I was put in an orphanage.”
The Kid folded his arms. “You live out here?”
Chauncey shook his head. “No. I was sent here. I come from Boston.”
“You were sent here from Boston?” the Kid held out the new helping of food. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Heyes pondered this for a few moments. “Did any of your folks come from here?”
“Then why here?”
“This is where Uncle Julius brought me.”
The Kid scowled. “You got an uncle and you ended up in a home?”
“He’s not a real uncle. He was a friend of my parents.”
The Kid kicked at some fallen leaves. “Yeah? Some friend. Where is this place?”
Chauncey’s eyes widened. “You can’t take me back. I won’t go. I’ll die there. It’s a terrible place.”
Heyes smiled softly. “I know those places aren’t exactly soft, but they’re not dangerous.”
“I’m not telling you where it is. I won’t go back.” Chauncey dropped the plate and stood. “Thanks for the food, it was great.” He backed off into the darkness but stopped at the heavy hand which dropped onto his bony shoulder.
“You ain’t goin’ anywhere, boy,” the Kid murmured. “It’d be criminal to let a child wander off into the wilderness on an October night.”
“You can’t keep me here. I won’t go back!” Chauncey started wriggling against the grasp. “I won’t.” The struggles became wilder until the Kid had to wrap an arm around his waist and carry the kicking child over to a tree. He pushed him to a sitting position and held him in place by both wrists. The boy’s wild, frantic eyes darted around and little flecks of saliva formed at the corners of his mouth as his breath started to come in great gulps of panic.
“Hey, hey!” The Kid’s voice was gentle but firm. “Nobody said we’d take you back. We just said you can’t head out on your own. There are bears and mountain lions out there.”
Chauncey stopped fighting but continued to hyperventilate. “You won’t?”
“Look, did I say we’d send you back?” The Kid gave a nod of reassurance. “We just said we couldn’t let you walk off into the night. Stay! Got that?”
The writhing stopped. “I s’pose. If you’re not taking me back...”
“Stay there, ya hear me, boy?” The Kid’s eyes glittered a warning through the night.
“Please, I can’t go back there. Promise me.”
The Kid grimaced. He didn’t want to lie to the child. “I’m an outlaw, boy. If you’re gonna survive in this life you’d better learn not to take folks at their word. It means squat. Some people’ll tell you anything that gets them what they want; it’s what they do that counts.”
Chauncy nodded. “Yes, you’re right.” The whites of the big eyes gleamed a pathetically grateful message by the light if the fire. “I can go in the morning? I can stay the night with you, by a fire? I’d like to be warm.”
“We insist on it,” Heyes gestured for the Kid to join him for a conversation. “Have you had enough to eat?”
“I left the rest of my beans,” Chauncy ventured, cautiously.
Heyes nodded. “Kyle! Get Chancy some more food. The Kid and I gotta talk.”
“Where’s the nearest orphanage?” Heyes murmured.
The Kid watched Chauncey mop the sauce up with a lump of rough bread. “The closest town or thereabouts, I guess, but he doesn’t want to go back, Heyes.”
“We can’t bring him with us, Kid. What else do you suggest?”
“Put him on a train to Boston?”
Heyes shook his head. “If his mother’s friend had wanted him he wouldn’t have ended up here. Orphanages are the last resort because they cost folks money; you know that as well as I do.
“Something ain’t right here. Why send a boy all that way?”
“I agree: they probably sent him here to stop him from pitching up on their doorsteps. If we send him back he’ll end up sinking into a life of crime – that’s if he’s lucky. The big city is full of folks who’ll use a boy anyway they want because it’s easier to be anonymous in a crowd. He’s better off out here. At least he’ll have a chance of farm work in a few years.”
The Kid rubbed his chin. “I guess. We’ve got no choice, but that was real panic in his eyes, Heyes. He was scared. We both hated Valpairso but we were never that bad. I’m not happy takin’ him back there until we check things out.”
“Kid, why is it you manage to find needy people everywhere. If I didn’t know better I’d think there was one behind every tree,”
The Kid cast a casual hand out to the trees. “If there were any more like him out there we’d be deafened by the noise they make. He ain’t equipped to deal with this. He needs help.”
“If you mean he’s been too sheltered, I agree. That’s why it’d be cruel to send him off to Boston. At least he’s only dealing with the elements here. In the big city he’d be preyed on every which way.”
They watched Chauncey follow Kyle, holding out his hands to warm them at the fire before taking a slug from the tin mug and screwing his face up in disgust. “Easily led,” Heyes muttered, “wouldn’t last ten minutes.”
“What age d’you think he is? Ten maybe?” the Kid queried, casually.
“Maybe. He’s real thin. He could be younger, but being so well spoken he sounds older.”
“You know what we’d have done at that age if we’d run into a gang like this?”
The dark-brown eyes dropped. “We’d be impressed. He can’t be; he needs to see us as lower than the dirt under a worm’s belly. He goes back tomorrow. So do we.”
“The job’s definitely off?”
“They’ll be no job. When he goes back all folks will be able to say is that a child went missing and that a group he thinks might be The Devil’s Hole Gang brought him back.” Heyes sighed heavily. “We can’t pull a job when we’ve been anywhere near a child; some might say we used him as a shield, a lookout, or even kidnapped him as a diversion. Only a fool mixes crime with children. If we’re lucky they’ll think he’s just full of wild tales.”
“Yeah, I guess.” The Kid nodded heading towards the child. “I’ll get out bedrolls out. He can share ours and we’ll get him back at first light.”
“Chancy?” The boy looked up at the smiling outlaw. “We’ve made you a bed. You can sleep with us near the fire. It can get cold outside, so you’d best keep your boots on. They’re dry, ain’t they?”
“Yes. They’re too big but I stuffed them with some old newspaper,” Chauncey, pulled up the leg of his pants and revealed a stick-thin, bare limb.
“No socks?” The Kid frowned. “You need to keep your feet dry and warm; it’s one of the first rules for survivin’ when you’re livin’ rough. C’mon, I’ll give you a pair.” He laid a hand on the boy’s back to guide him but pulled it back abruptly when Chauncey stiffened and sucked in a sharp breath of pain. “What? Did that hurt?”
Chauncey’s gaze dropped. “A little.”
“I barely touched you, boy. Let me see.”
Chauncey stepped back. “No, I’m fine.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the Kid reached over and dragged up the lad’s shirt tails. His face hardened before he raised his head and called to his partner. “Heyes, we got a problem.”
The bleeding welts covering the child’s back had been a deal breaker. Poor Chauncey suddenly found himself at the centre of the tender mercies of an angry pack of soothing hoodlums; if they didn’t kill him with kindness they we very likely to stray towards dead-drunk with their standard, medicinal alcohol applied liberally; both internally and externally. Within half an hour it was fair to say that it wasn’t so much a case of feeling better – he was just feeling a lot less - and couldn’t care less about whatever was left swirling around the trio of kaleidoscopic campfires rotating in front of his blinking eyes.
He had talked; telling his saviours everything from the fact that he was nine, to the name of the woman in charge of his punishment for daring to ask for another blanket as autumnal chills started to seep through his only cover. The beatings and hunger were a harrowing reminder of the impotence of an inconvenient childhood; just as the scars, the protruding ribs and hunted eyes testified to the persistence of the abuse.
The Kid watched his partner stare over at the boy swaddled in blankets, lying on his side away from his injured back. His quietude spoke volumes to anyone who knew Hannibal Heyes well; it was the stillness in the eye of the storm. The dark eyes swirled with dark thoughts and memories, thrust back into a torn past.
“The Kinscumber Private Asylum, Davistown. D’ya think he’ll remember tellin’ us?” the Kid asked.
Heyes breathed heavily with suppressed anger. “Not as much as the folks responsible will, Kid. There’s a storm headed their way. That boy has been starved and beaten like a cur. Are you with me?”
“She’s a woman, Heyes. If it was a man I’d be first in line, but what can we do?”
“Do? I need to think about that one, Kid,” Heyes scratched his chin pensively. “There are some things you can’t stand back and ignore. Sometimes the silent majority has to speak up and I’ll be damned if I’ll be a bystander to this. It’s autumn; that boy wouldn’t survive a winter of that kind of treatment.” He turned a joyless smile on his cousin, his eyes flickering with a malevolent glint. “A woman might be in charge of the day-to-day care, but a man will run the place. What d’you say, Kid? Do you think they need a visit from some more orphans? After all, they’re one down at the moment. They have vacancy.”
To be continued...